TABUSINTAC – It took a few months, but the Tabusintac group pushing for a new school and community centre for the region finally has a date to meet with the education minister.

Fraser McCallum, the chairman of Tabusintac Community Centre Inc., said he was contacted by the office of Miramichi Bay – Neguac MLA Carmel Robichaud Wednesday with the news a date had been set for March 12, weeks after the group first asked her to set up the meeting.

“Long over due, but we do have a date,” said McCallum, adding yesterday the group received a response to a letter sent to the premier’s office last month.

Robichaud’s office and the Education Department confirmed the date yesterday morning.

The group has been asking for the meeting to discuss the construction of a the hoped-for school and community centre, whose $5.3-million cost would be mostly covered by the government, with around $700,000 coming from the community.

However, the group only managed to raise $400,000 of that, and Lamrock reportedly told the group there would be no start date until the $300,000 gap was bridged.

Miramichi MP Tilly O’Neill-Gordon confirmed the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) had set the money aside in its budget, and just needed a start date from the province.

McCallum said he hoped the group would be able to get Lamrock to acknowledge the ACOA funds were now in place.

“That seems to be a stumbling block for this provincial government,” he said.

“And we want to talk about a start date, and then whether there’s the possibility of accessing some of that infrastructure funding that’s coming down the tubes,” he continued, referring to infrastructure funds announced in the federal budget last month.

A new school for Tabusintac and repairs to Eleanor W. Graham Middle School in Richibucto were considered top priorities for the the district. While Tabusintac did not receive funds Eleanor W. Graham, which is located in Premier Shawn Graham’s riding, did.

McCallum would not say whether he thought that was a factor in that school getting funding priority, saying only that he was discouraged Tabusintac Rural was not moving ahead.

“We were certainly on the radar before Eleanor Graham, and we’re certainly behind now,” he said.

“I can’t say that … that’s been a factor. I certain hope that it hasn’t been. But we’ve been in the system for so long and we just seem to get pushed behind.”

The department said earlier this week, extra $300,000 or not, the school would not be considered again for funding until the next capital budget.

When asked what he would say if Lamrock said the same at the meeting, which could also include representatives from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, O’Neill-Gordon and the District Education Council, McCallum said he would deal with it as it came up.

He repeated the most pressing concern was getting the department to acknowledge the last bit of funding is in place.

“There is now nothing to stop us from going ahead with this project, whether it’s now or in the next capital budget,” he said. “We want that clearly recognized, and we want some kind of indication from the minister … basically stating that the school is going to be built.”

The community centre that would be part of the facility in Tabusintac would include a larger gym, separate cafeteria with kitchen, several meeting rooms, a fitness area, computer access centre and a small library.

McCallum said the facility would service both the school and community more cost effectively, rather than have those services provided separately.

Patricia Lee, the chair of the District Education Council, confirmed she would like to be involved in the meeting.

“Now that they have the money secured, now they want to be able to go forward,” she said.

“Now it’s time to sit down and look at when this school can be built. [Public-private partnership] schools, any of those things may have to be considered, then we may need a partnership, but we’d like to have it built.”

She added it would be up to Tabusintac Community Centre Inc. if they wanted to go the route of public-private partnerships.

Mixed-use facilities pushed

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies last week came out heavily in support of centralizing functions such as schools and gyms in mixed-use facilities.

The Halifax-based think tank’s executive vice president, Charles Cirtwill, said communities had to be more flexible about what would be considered a school.

“The simple reality we’re going to have to face is, over the next 10 or 15 years, we’re not going to have as many school-age children as we used to have,” he said. “So the idea that we can build schools in just about every community for say 150, 300 kids just isn’t going to happen anymore.”

Rather, when it comes to building new facilities, the focus should be on multi-use buildings.

“So for communities of the size we’re talking about, 1,000 or fewer, these buildings offer the opportunity to mix all these facilities into a single place.”

He listed itinerant nurses, activity spaces, meeting rooms, even a local police office or library as potential uses, adding some schools in Edmonton already rent out space to the YMCA or Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

“The client base is the same, you know, they’re parents, they’re students,” Cirtwill said. “And, getting to the question about security, which is one of the things you hear, if you put a community policing officer in the school, you don’t have as much of a concern around that. Same thing with the social services suppliers. Those folks are security checked anyway.”

As far as funding went, he said while public-private partnerships were possible, the multi-use nature of such facilities allowed it to access funds from multiple sources, such as the Education and Social Development departments, or even revenue generated from renting space out to cover some of the school’s operating costs.

“I think both the people who operate these facilities and the people who use them, the general public, are open to these kind of partnerships,” he said.

He said the New Brunswick government may have no choice but to support schools such as these, as a way to both cut its long-term costs and deliver needed programs.

“The population in all these groupings is going to be smaller, so they’re either going to have to overbuild by design, or they’re going to have to find far more creative ways to build things to meet multiple demand,” he said.